WATCH: Professor John Fabian Witt on the Legal History of Contagious Disease in the U.S.


Professor John Fabian Witt ’99 has produced a series of short Zoom lectures on the legal history of epidemics and infectious diseases in the U.S. that are accessible to the public online (see links below). The lectures were initially given as part of Professor Witt’s American Legal History course at Yale.

“This is a first draft on a subject in which we’re all suddenly and tragically and unavoidably immersed,” explained Witt. “We’re already reproducing patterns laid down in past epidemics. We’re doomed to repeat the worst parts of our past if we don’t understand them. Studying the history helps us see what’s new about this coronavirus.” 

The central thesis of the lecture series is that domestically and for elites, American public health law has been liberal, or “sanitationist” to use the language of public health history. But at the border and for the poor and for non-whites, according to Witt, the law of epidemics has been authoritarian or “quarantinist.” Either way, the history of public health crises illuminates the enduring significance of our legal institutions in shaping public health policies.

Witt is Allen H. Duffy Class of 1960 Professor of Law at Yale Law School. He is the author of a number of books, including Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History, which was awarded the Bancroft Prize, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, was selected for the American Bar Association's Silver Gavel Award, and was a New York Times Notable Book. He is also a Professor of History and the Head of Yale’s Davenport College.

To view the series, click on the links below.

Watch the full lecture

Part 1: “Is public health law a continuation of law and politics by other means? The Ackerknecht thesis for American legal history.”

Part 2: “Sanitationism in the history of American law.”

Part 3: “Jacobson v. Massachusetts and the quaranist path.”

Part 4: “Legal limits and embedded constraints."

Part 5: “A modern public health synthesis and its uncertain future.”